Somber, poetic look at inner-city manhood ponders multiple questions of identity
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson
Percolating up from the film fest circuit and into mainstream theaters where it’s already generating some Oscar buzz (the Independent Spirit Awards seem like a lock, at least) comes Barry Jenkins’ beautifully nuanced and tacitly profound coming-of-age drama Moonlight. Adapted from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s short theater piece “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Moonlight covers several decades in the life of one timid and confused southern Florida boy. Though its style is quiet and reserved, the film manages to scratch its way into your soul, making it one of this year’s most intimate and engaging character studies.
Staged much like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—albeit in a much different racial and social bracket—the film introduces us to 10-year-old Chiron (played first by Alex Hibbert), a skinny, latchkey kid living in Miami with his single, struggling mother. Chiron’s classmates nickname him Little and target him for daily harassment. Chased into a local crack den, Little is rescued by a sympathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, admirably refusing to reduce his character to a stereotype). Juan brings the tightlipped kid home to his kindly girlfriend Teresa (the lovely “psychedelic soul” singer Janelle Monáe, proving she’s got a second career option open to her if she wants). Even after he’s returned to his mother, Little comes to view Juan and Teresa as surrogate parents.
That relationship becomes even more important years later, when a 16-year-old Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is starting to come to grips with his identity. Juan has disappeared from the picture (we can assume to jail), but Teresa remains a patient, guiding figure in Chiron’s life. His mom, an overworked nurse, is escaping into drug addiction, and Chiron spends as much time outside of his unhappy home as possible. The teenager is still lonely and bullied, but the abuse has taken a more concrete form. Though he wasn’t quite old enough to understand it at age 10, the post-pubescent Chiron is coming to realize that he’s probably gay. That can be a difficult identity in any high school, much less one in gang-filled inner city Miami. Chiron is already pigeonholed as an African-American, a teenager and someone who lives in the ghetto. Toss homosexual onto the pile of stereotypes by which he can be judged, and Chiron is in for a difficult life. Surprisingly, he finds sympathy in a confident, womanizing classmate named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).
The final chapter of Moonlight picks up with Chiron, now going by the nickname Black (and played ultimately by Trevante Rhodes), in his mid-20s. In the years since we last saw him, he’s gone through some major changes. It’s interesting to find out just which of the stereotypes Chiron has surrendered to. Despite the surface differences, however, he’s still the same confused and introspective kid we met at age 10. A chance encounter with his old friend Kevin causes him to grapple once again with his biggest inner conflict—his sexuality.
A generation ago Moonlight would have been looked on solely as an LGBTQ film, done well on the art house circuit and been largely overlooked by mainstream audiences. But attitudes have changed. Plus it’s clear that Jenkins has far more questions for his characters and his audiences than just those pertaining to sexuality. Ultimately, Chiron’s sexual identity is a big part of what makes him him. But it’s not the only thing factoring into his coming of age. For all its specificity, Moonlight is a surprisingly universal tale about growing up and coming to grips with who and what we are. Credit Jenkins’ poetic touches, which take what could have been a rough, realistic portrayal—a la Precious—and turned it into a dreamy, soft-focus memory bliss. Dumping the gritty, handheld camera most filmmakers would have used to lens this tale for a Steadicam with shallow depth of field gives the lensing a much more intimate feel. Add on top of that the unhurrried classical score, and we’ve got a film that lingers on the eyes, in the ears and, ultimately, in the brain.
Though it avoids the darkest most exploitative corners this sort of story could have easily wandered into, the script does butt up against some tough issues—most of which are confronted in emotional rather than visceral ways. A lot of other movies flirting with this milieu would have had Chiron’s father figure Juan gunned down in a hail of bullets as an object lesson. Instead, Juan is presented as a complex figure full of good intentions, who just happens to sell drugs for a living. No big deal—at least until it becomes clear that he’s the dealer who’s been supplying Chiron’s mom with crack. That’s the sort of thorny ethical dilemma Moonlight excels at setting up.
Though it offers no easy answers, no concrete path to understanding, self-fulfillment and redemption, Moonlight does sympathize greatly with those who struggle to define themselves. Alternately easygoing and hard-hitting, Moonlight is a poignant and ultimately hopeful look at what it means—and what it takes—to be a man in modern-day America.